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How to Find and Engage Diverse Thinkers to Drive Innovation

by Ron Kane
5 minutes read

In a recent talk to entrepreneurs, Steve Wozniak described several early interactions between himself and Jobs.  Wozniak would work on something new and when he came to town, Jobs would want to see what he was building. When Wozniak showed him the latest technical advance or new thing he was working on, Jobs would see past the cleverness of the idea itself and immediately begin to formulate how to market and sell it.  It’s a pattern that would be repeated continuously and the result is, of course, historic.  The story, (admittedly one-sided and a bit simplified in the storytelling by Mr. Wozniak) shows us something important about innovating.  It often takes more than one type of person to deliver innovation to its useful place.  My experience tells me that there are three types of thinkers we should bring to the table when innovating in our businesses: the Futurist, the Skeptic, and the Pragmatist. 

Identifying the Futurist

A colleague of mine, Mark (not his real name), is the first person my teammates think about when they want to get a group together to brainstorm a problem or develop something new.  You probably work with people like him too; they’re constantly playing with the latest gadgets and always flitting around from one idea to the next, excited about what’s new in technology, science, or other areas of discovery.  It’s often difficult to keep up with what they are working on, and they can sometimes be frustrated by others not sharing the same passion for their latest cool idea. “That’s impossible,” is not in their vocabulary. When they hear it from others, it’s a call to action to prove otherwise. People like Mark are the Futurists in your organization, and they are invaluable contributors to successful innovation. 

How to Get the Most Out of the Futurist

Leveraging the Futurist involves striking a balance between providing them the freedom to dream and explore and ensuring that their ideas are guided towards practical and achievable goals. Encourage their innovative spirit, while fostering a collaborative environment where their ideas can be challenged, honed, and transformed into real-world applications. Pairing Futurists with Pragmatists and Skeptics can help balance their visionary thinking with practicality and skepticism, preventing over-investment in unfeasible ideas. By embracing and harnessing the unique strengths of a Futurist, organizations can inspire innovation and keep ahead of the curve, while also ensuring ideas are grounded in reality and aligned with the organization’s goals and capabilities. 

Identifying the Skeptic

While the Futurist is happy about the latest new thing and hyper-curious about what’s not yet possible, the Skeptic is happy about the status quo and how things work today.  They are often the bedrock of an organization, the primary doers; those who keep the business humming along through their consistency, commitment to detail, and operational excellence. When using communal groups to innovate, the Skeptic will help create tension in the idea’s tug of war that characterizes meaningful brainstorming and innovation planning. 

How to Get the Most Out of the Skeptic 

To maximize the contribution of a Skeptic, organizations should value their essential role in providing a reality check for ideas, while also encouraging them to be open to change. They should be actively involved in innovation discussions to offer critiques that can help refine and improve ideas. However, it’s crucial to foster a positive atmosphere where their skepticism is seen as constructive criticism, not negativity. Pairing Skeptics with Futurists can create a dynamic balance between visionary ideas and practical implementation. The Skeptic’s rigorous analysis and practical focus can help ensure that the Futurist’s innovative ideas are feasible and beneficial to the organization. By appreciating and utilizing the unique strengths of a Skeptic, organizations can maintain operational excellence while encouraging an environment of constructive challenge that drives innovation.

Identifying the Pragmatist

There is a third critical type of thinker useful for these collaborations; I’ll call them the Pragmatists. The Pragmatist usually shares characteristics of both the Futurist and the Skeptic and can often translate in the middle ground between the two. Part dreamer and part operational guru, they can offer either provocation or compromise when needed, to move the ball. They are usually personified by a bias toward action or movement toward a decision. They also make great facilitators. They’ll often help the group with the energy and thinking needed to see something play out to a success or fail point conclusion. 

How to Get the Most Out of the Pragmatist 

To fully utilize a Pragmatist, organizations should recognize their crucial role in facilitating discussions and driving decisions. They should be strategically placed in teams where their ability to translate between visionary ideas and practical realities can be most effectively used. Their bias for action can help maintain momentum in the innovation process, preventing stagnation in the ideation phase. It’s crucial to ensure that they are given the authority to make decisions and keep projects moving forward, and their input should be valued equally alongside the Futurist’s vision and the Skeptic’s critical analysis. By acknowledging and capitalizing on the unique strengths of a Pragmatist, organizations can foster an environment that balances innovation with practical action, ensuring ideas are not only generated but also effectively executed. 

The Importance of a Diverse Brainstorm

Truly successful innovation, from initial research, to brainstorming a premise for action, to building a proof of concept and beyond is hard work and even the best fail more often than they succeed.  Building your team with a combination of Futurists, Skeptics and Pragmatists, all pulling on the rope in the tug of war of ideas, can give innovators the best chance possible for success. 

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